California has been a pioneer in pushing for rooftop solar power, building up the largest solar market in the U.S. Beginning in 2006, the state, focused on how to incentivize people to accept solar power, showered subsidies on homeowners who installed photovoltaic panels but had no comprehensive plan to dispose of them.
Now, panels purchased under those programs are nearing the end of their typical 25-year life cycle.
Solar panel recycling has always been a major question in the solar industry. But, because solar panels last so long, it was largely a question that the industry put off for later. Later is now and we need to deal with it.
It’s not just a problem in California but also nationwide. About 140,000 panels are installed every day in the United States, and the solar industry is expected to quadruple in size between 2020 and 2030.
In the coming years, recyclers will hopefully be able to mine billions of dollars worth of materials from discarded solar panels, according to a new analysis. That should also be able to ease bottlenecks in the supply chain for solar panels while also making the panels themselves more sustainable.
Right now, most dead solar panels in the US just get shredded or chucked into a landfill. The economics just don’t shake out in recycling’s favor. The value you can squeeze out of a salvaged panel hasn’t been enough to make up for the cost of transporting and recycling it. That’s on track to change, according to the recent analysis by research firm Rystad Energy.
The demand for recycled solar photovoltaic (PV) panel components is set to skyrocket in the coming years. Rystad Energy’s analysis shows recyclable materials from PV panels will be worth more than $2.7 billion in 2030, up from only $170 million this year. This trend will only accelerate in the coming decades and the value of recyclable materials is projected to approach $80 billion by 2050.
MAKING THE PANELS THEMSELVES MORE SUSTAINABLE
Currently, solar energy makes up just over 3 percent of the global electricity mix. But the world’s energy systems are at the start of a drastic makeover to bring more renewable energy online.
It is estimated that solar could account for upwards of 40 percent of the global power supply. It also helps that solar panels have grown super affordable, becoming a cheaper source of electricity than coal or gas in most of the world.
Still, there are some clouds ahead in the otherwise sunny forecast for solar energy. To build more solar panels, you need more materials. Right now, mining and processing of those materials are concentrated in a handful of countries. That’s left the solar supply chain vulnerable to disruptions and rife with abuse.
“There’s an informational gap, there’s a technological gap, and there’s a financial gap that we’re working on,” said Amanda Bybee, Co-founder of SolarRecycle.org
RECYCLING COULD SOON GET MORE SOPHISTICATED
Recycling will play a role in diversifying those supply chains. It might also lessen the toll that mining takes on the environment and on the health of workers and nearby communities.
In the future, more of the materials used to make new solar panels are likely to come from re-hashed panels. Recovered silver, polysilicon, copper, and aluminum can fetch the most cash on the recycling market, according to Rystad.
Unfortunately, today, silver and solar-grade silicon usually aren’t separated out with today’s recycling methods. It’s often shredded along with the rest of the panel and sold as crushed glass. Luckily, recycling could soon get more sophisticated, thanks to new research into how to salvage the most valuable stuff inside photovoltaic panels.
Solar started to take off in the 2000s, and with a lifespan of around 25 years — we’re just now approaching the first big wave of discarded solar panels. For now, we believe it is important to get the conversation started because proper solar panel waste management now can lead to a better future for solar and for the environment. If these old and no longer needed solar panels are treated properly, that trash could become a treasure.